Semiotics: As a Field of Study and as a Critical Lens
Semiotics is a branch of language study that examines the meaning and interplay of signs. The notion of “signs” is both easy to grasp (because it is common) and curiously elusive (because we are sometimes unaware of the signs that surround us in our daily lives). Signs are almost literally all around us and we use them to extract meaning from the world. This process is sometimes fully conscious, sometimes automatic (unconscious) and often subtle.
For semiotics, signs include the specific ways a person might dress or the choice of music that a person plays while driving. These choices indicate certain ideas which bear specific cultural associations. The choices of clothing and music signify affiliations and identities.
Class, race, gender, and generational identities are communicated by codes that most of us recognize without pausing to puzzle them out. Thus identities are signified within a system of culturally intelligible signs. The field of semiotics takes up those signs as a point of study.
Semiotics, Branding, Identity and Signs that Lie
Just as systems of signs and coded communication can be found in many places, semiotics too is applicable to a wide array of subjects. In particular, studies in semiotics examine the methodologies employed by politicians, celebrities and corporate brands as they take advantage of the existence of coded communication in highly intentional ways.
The people responsible for advertising campaigns understand that there are cultural signs that indicate ideas like youth, social responsibility, innovation, intelligence, attractiveness, wealth, power, being hip and all sorts of attitudes. They use these signs to define brands and to align a brand with a certain identity. And branding works. We are often only half-aware of this kind of semiotic communication, even in an age of where we are hyper-aware of the idea that commercials intend to manipulate us.
Semiotics presents a means of illuminating the specific, cultural code-work that informs branding campaigns and sells products. Reading the texts that surround us on a semiotic level (whether they are movie posters or make-up commercials) may help to explain why we feel the tug of desire for one product and not another. We might feel better about being consciously persuaded to desire to purchase a specific item if we can also say that we were not unconsciously manipulated into that desire.
The usefulness of a semiotic approach might come into focus if we look at some examples of semiotics in everyday life. Marketers are not the only people who communicate through signs and cultural codes. And they are not the only ones who might use signs to manipulate others.
When we see an expensively dressed person in an expensive car playing Brahms or Mozart, we register the identity being communicated via these culturally-freighted signs. We know who this person is, generically, because we can read the signs. Yet, what if that expensively dressed, classical music aficionado actually rented the BMW and is planning to return the new suit after he attends the wedding of his former girlfriend? There is a possibility that these significations may be an act – – but, importantly, it is an intelligible act because we know what the signs mean.
Our cultural codes communicate to us in subtle ways but they do not always tell the truth. In The Objects of Affection, semiotics theorist Arthur Asa Berger argues that signs like those mentioned above can be used to lie as well as tell the truth and that fact is actually what makes a sign meaningful (53). Because a sign is established in its meaning, it is capable of deceiving. Because a sign is capable of deceiving, it has a meaning that, to some extent, exists on the level of language.
One take-away from this aspect of semiotics is that we can see how individuals communicate an identity (sometimes dishonestly) by playing on signs and codes. You probably know someone who listens to metal music but who does not really listen to it. He just plays it when other people are around. That person is saying something with the music, speaking in a code that most of us understand immediately.
Asking questions about what exactly is being said through the music is a semiotics question. Going back to our BMW driver with the expensive suit, we might wonder how our reading of the image changes if we hear Beyoncé blasting from the speakers of that BMW instead of Mozart. This too is a semiotics question. What are the signs we are reading and what do those signs signify?
Semiotics as a Socio-Cultural Critical Lens
At a fundamental level, the field of semiotics looks at the intersections between language, signs and psychology. One of the originators of the field of semiotics, Ferdinand Saussure, argued that a “science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable; it would be part of social psychology and consequently part of general psychology” (qtd. in Berger, 5). Studying the ways we think about signs may illuminate the nature of our social fabric, helping to explain why we desire or admire certain objects (and not others) and why we use certain gestures (and not others).
Looking at the human world as a structure made up of meaningful signs, semiotics presents a method of “reading” social codes in ways that seek to investigate elements of communication that can often be overlooked. Semiotics can also be fruitfully applied to cultural and literary studies, offering a mode of interpretation that addresses signs and sign systems within a text.
Applying semiotics to cultural and literary studies entails a particular perspective that aims to identify the signifying objects and the subtle indicators of meaning that we use as the subconscious basis of our conscious interpretations. Connotations and associations are taken into consideration as elements of a text that generate meaning. Thus the material that constitutes the context and the subtext of a literary work (or a social event) becomes the focus of a semiotic approach.
By addressing some of the associations and connotations coded into a culture and internalized by a society, semiotics brings into focus some attitudes and meanings that may become invisible norms. Arthur Asa Berger suggests that “one of the main purposes of semiotics is to identify the hidden codes that shape our beliefs and the way we find meaning in the world” (25). When he discusses how codes “affect everything from how we think about cheese, what we wear, how we raise children […] to how we are buried when we die” (25-26), Berger indicates the pervasive nature of sign systems and points to the fundamental marriage of culture and codes.
In his well-known 1957 work, Mythologies, French scholar Roland Barthes applies a semiotic reading to a wide range of social “texts,” from professional wrestling to flying saucers to fries and steak. One way to describe the method of Barthes approach to these texts is to see his work repeatedly and incisively posing the question: What are we really talking about when we talk about Subject X?
What are we really talking about when we talk about fries and steak? What are we really talking about when we talk about flying saucers?
Barthes’ Mythologies answers these questions by assessing the connotations and associations that inform the context of the subject. Barthes draws interesting connections between flying saucers and a fear of Russian communism, arguing that the notion of alien air craft can be directly linked to Western views of Russia as an alien society (completely foreign and unknowable). He claims that steak is “nationalized” (84) in France and effectively represents a French self-definition because it is “endowed with a supplementary virtue of elegance, […] it is a nourishment which is thought to combine succulence with simplicity” (84). In arguing that steak signifies a complex-yet-intelligible French identity, Barthes suggests that when the French talk about steak they are really talking about what it means to be French.
To go back one step here, we might connect this kind of semiotic approach to our early example of semiotics in everyday life and ask: What are we really talking about when we talk about BMW’s and classical music? For a more interesting question, we can look at the second version of that image and ask what are we really talking about when we talk about Beyoncé?
Tied up with notions of race and class and gender, Beyoncé, as an idea, is more socially meaningful and culturally-freighted than she is an individual. When we talk about Beyoncé we are not talking about the person who gets up every day and brushes her teeth. There is necessarily more to the Beyoncé image than mundane hygiene and normal life. So, what are we talking about when we talk about Beyoncé?
This is a question that falls into the purview of semiotics.
Semiotics as a Literary Critical Lens
Studying literary texts can be supplemented by an examination of similar questions and similar signs within a poem, story or novel. The same codes that indicate class, race, gender, generational or national identity in the real world also function within fiction. Sometimes these codes are challenged and subverted in literature. Sometimes they are used to lie.
A semiotic reading of The Great Gatsby usefully demonstrates many of the ways that Jay Gatsby uses the trappings of success to construct a performed identity. Using signs of social status (extravagant wealth, massive parties, etc.), Gatsby “encodes” himself within the society, signifying a culturally intelligible identity that is only partially authentic. His ability to sustain his deceit rests entirely on the substantial cache of the signs he employs to create an image for himself. People know the signs of wealth and Gatsby flashes those signs. While his party guests doubt his origin story, they cannot untangle the knots of truth tied up with his deceptions. In Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald gives us a vision of an elite social status as little more than a self-congratulating performance played upon a system of established signs.
There is more to The Great Gatsby than this brief reading suggests, of course, but we can see how semiotics can help to generate a literary interpretation that addresses some of the subtleties of a text. Once we begin to “see the signs” at work, we can pose questions like Barthes did and ask, what are we really talking about when we talk about wealth in The Great Gatsby?
Semiotics and the Politics of Literature
One of the great literary debates of the 20th century can be seen as a debate of semiotics. In 1977 Chinua Achebe denounced Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a racist novel and the crux of Achebe’s accusation is equal parts text and subtext. His view of Conrad’s novel as racist has as much to do with the context of the narrative, set along the Congo River, as it does with the content of the story. In short, Achebe accuses Conrad of playing on a system of signified associations that denigrate the humanity of Africans.
The discussion that followed the publication of Achebe’s essay is ongoing and remains relevant. In his highly critical essay, Achebe proposes that “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.” Defenders of Heart of Darkness claim that Conrad’s depiction of the imperialist-colonialism system is actually entirely negative and that the novel, far from championing racist views, actually seeks to challenge dehumanizing stereotypes of Africans.
Achebe saw things otherwise. His position is that Conrad “chose the role of purveyor of comforting myths,” claiming that in Conrad’s narrative choices the author “neglects to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters.” The position taken by Achebe in this debate is effectively semiotic as he examines the signs that Conrad produces (or reproduces) in his novel, suggesting that Heart of Darkness is a racist novel due to the fact that it specifically fails to question associations and connotations surrounding the African characters in the novel, depicting them as simple-minded savages and cannibals. Value-laden biases embedded in the language of light and dark, white and black are enacted throughout the novel. While the text may challenge the ethics of colonialism, it does not pose an acceptable answer to the question of what are we really talking about when we talk about Africans?
In Achebe’s view, the self-exempting and self-congratulating habit of Western literature is continued in Heart of Darkness in the novel’s characterizations of race. Even relatively enlightened interpretations of the novel, Achebe claims, “almost always managed to sidestep the ultimate question of equality between white people and black people.” The nature of this criticism from Achebe, whether one ultimately agrees or disagrees with his take on Conrad’s novel, demonstrates the political potency of a semiotic approach to literature. Achebe’s criticism also creates an opportunity for a similarly oriented critical approach to his own fiction.
Reading Things Fall Apart from a semiotic standpoint one can see ways in which Achebe was writing with an acute awareness of social codes and sign systems. A considerable portion of the novel is devoted to detailed descriptions of the signification systems that exist to make a culture, the Igbo, intelligible to itself.
With passages describing rites and rituals and the figures that perform them, Achebe addresses his text to the aspects of Igbo culture that can be seen explicitly as cultural context. The associations attached to the egwugwu and to wrestling matches come to express notions of cultural continuity. Protagonist Okonkwo’s mental and emotional life is closely bound to the meaningful function of these signs as they define his cultural context. When the signs lose potency, Okonkwo loses his sense of identity and stability.
In Things Fall Apart, Achebe presents a substantive answer to the question what are we really talking about when we talk about Africans? by offering a specific cultural depiction of Igbo life in Nigeria. The eventual conflicts between the British and the Igbo can perhaps be best understood in the frame of semiotics as conflicts rooted in differing sign systems. For instance, Achebe directly deals with the question of what are we really talking about when we talk about “God” and “Chuckwu”?
This particular dispute has everything to do with semiotics. One of the novel’s most damning messages about the colonialist forces can be located here, in a moment where even the most understanding British representative, Mr. Brown, refuses to acknowledge the validity of a sign system that is different from his own. Instead, Mr. Brown insists on correcting the “false views” of the Igbo system. For Mr. Brown, the Igbo sign system is only capable of indicating inferior gods because the system itself is inferior. His perspective is akin to the one Achebe ascribes to Joseph Conrad in that there is no mutuality of rightness, humanityor intelligence afforded to the African people. The integrity of Brown’s own semiotic system rests in part on the broadly stereotypical view of Africa and Africans as inferior to Europe and Europeans.
Applying a semiotic approach to literature can inform both criticism and authorship, as Achebe demonstrates on both counts. Investigating the subtle associations and connotations that inform our conscious interpretations of a text can lead to insights into the politics of literature and the politics of reading.
The field of semiotics is founded on the notion of interplay and interconnection. In assessing the “life of signs,” as Ferdinand Saussure put it, we are assessing the way we extract meaning from the world around us. We see through semiotics how our social world is a text – – a complex one – – and we might begin to establish a critical apparatus for reading that text.
Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'” Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, background and Sources Criticism. 1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co., 1988. Web.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books. 1994. Print.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang. 2013. Print.
Berger, Arthur Asa. The Objects of Affection: Semiotics and Consumer Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2010. Print.